Hire Learning: C-Level Executive

How to Hire and Train an Executive for Your Cannabis Business

By Bart Schaneman

As the cannabis industry matures and companies grow and evolve, hiring C-suite executives – CEOs, COOs, CFOs, etc. – will help determine whether your company thrives … or dies.

As an owner or top executive already with the business, you want someone who’s an effective leader, is willing to take direction and can find a way to fit into your company’s culture. In short, that person must help take your company to the next level in today’s increasingly competitive marijuana industry.

Cannabis industry experience is a plus, but you really want someone who has specialized knowledge in the area he or she will be leading.

For example, your chief marketing officer needs to be a marketing and public relations wizard. And your chief technology officer should be a technological guru, among other things.

Finding that right fit is a challenge, because candidates often have strong skills in one area but not another.

“I call this my Goldilocks search,” said Nancy Whiteman, co-owner of Colorado edibles maker Wana Brands. “This one’s got a little too much of this and a little too much of that. You’re never going to find somebody who’s got every attribute that you’re looking for, but you try to get close.”

WHAT TO LOOK FOR

For Sue Mullin, director of human resources at PharmaCann, an Illinois-based medical marijuana company, industry experience is appealing. But her primary focus is expertise, skills and abilities for the role.

“We specifically look for people who are experts in their field that want to bring those skills and experiences to PharmaCann,” Mullin said.

It’s more important for Mullin, for example, to get a highly skilled and experienced chief financial officer than somebody who works in the cannabis industry.

She also wants a candidate who is a fit for PharmaCann’s culture.

“Are they someone you would like to work with who would fit within the culture?” she said. “We want people who are very passionate about what they do. Informal but professional. You have to tie the characteristics to the organization.”

For an executive-level position, Mullin also wants candidates who are willing to take their passion and their experience and apply it to the new position.

“We’re looking for someone who’s seen it and done it before at a different organization and wants to do it at PharmaCann,” she said.

For Scott Van Rixel, co-founder of Bhang Chocolate, an edibles company in Oakland, California, an earlier approach might have been to recruit from the cannabis industry.

“That’s less important now,” he said. “You need someone who’s a traditional, good CEO.”

Van Rixel is not as concerned about a candidate’s knowledge of marijuana. He wants to ensure the potential new hire knows how to run a business well. That means looking outside the marijuana industry to put the company ahead of the competition.

“That is the next progression,” Van Rixel said. “You hire a CEO to move you to that next level. As we get larger, I need someone who understands the mechanics of running a larger company.”

As for personality, Van Rixel wants a person who can get along with him.

“Someone that can make sure that my wishes can get implemented in a way that are best for the company,” he said.

Whiteman wants a person who can work well with other executives at her company.

At press time, Whiteman was seeking a chief operating officer – in particular, someone who could offer strengths to offset her weaknesses.

“I’m looking for someone who has demonstrated that ability to run the day-to-day operation,” she said. “But also someone who brings to the table some of the skill sets that are not my strongest to backfill for me a little bit.”

Because Wana is a manufacturer, Whiteman needs someone who understands the production and manufacturing side of the business.

“But I’m also looking for someone who is strong financially, who understands how to look at and manage the financials,” Whiteman added.

Typically, Whiteman also wants to know why a candidate is interested in the marijuana industry.

“What fits with our culture is that there’s a lot of passion and commitment for the plant itself and the potential that plant has to improve people’s lives,” Whiteman said. “We’re not looking for somebody who necessarily uses cannabis themselves, but somebody who has some connection to it, a little bit more than just, ‘Oh, it’s the next big industry.’”

To determine such characteristics, Whiteman said, it’s important to
have a comprehensive hiring process that allows candidates to show who they are.

People send in resumes and cover letters, and Wana’s human resources director reviews them. If the HR director likes the candidate, she notifies Whiteman. If Whiteman agrees, the HR director does a phone interview. If the HR director approves, then Whiteman does a phone interview. Only then does the candidate come in to meet the whole team.

WHERE TO LOOK

Mullin uses online recruiting resources such as LinkedIn or Indeed.

She also posts job opportunities on PharmaCann’s careers homepage.

Van Rixel has tried a few options, depending on the situation.

They’ve included headhunters as well as advertisements in traditional media like Inc. magazine.

“The right kind of people read that magazine,” he said.

Wana doesn’t use a recruiter, instead relying more on word of mouth.

“It’s a lot of letting people know that we’re looking,” Whiteman said.

And, if necessary, she posts on Indeed and LinkedIn.

HOW TO TRAIN

At PharmaCann, newly hired executives undergo a “rigorous onboarding process.”

New hires are paired with current executives to provide them with different perspectives of the business.

For example, PharmaCann recently hired a new chief marketing officer. Part of her onboarding process will be to meet with each executive on a regular basis as sort of a mentoring program.

“When you’re growing this quickly and moving this quickly, getting them onboarded so they don’t get lost in the volume is critical to the organization and to the new hire,” Mullin said. “We require our executives to meet with the new hire and help them through the onboarding process so that information comes through quicker in terms of the learning process.”

Van Rixel tries to hire someone he won’t have to mold too much once that person is on board.

“Someone who would fit our style, rather than forcing someone to fit our style,” he said. “That’s where you run into it not working. If the style of our company is to write a signature in cursive, I wouldn’t hire someone who prints their name.”

If the person does need training, Van Rixel would trust his director of operations to handle it.

For Whiteman, the first month or two of onboarding a new executive involves helping the new hire get as much exposure as possible to the company and the people that person will be working with.

If that person is new to the cannabis business, Whiteman also exposes him or her to some of the key industry players.

Whiteman said she would take the person to industry meetings such as the Cannabis Business Alliance, the National Cannabis Industry Association or Colorado Leads, which brings together MJ business leaders, and use those settings as an opportunity for introductions. Conferences also are good for introductions.

“It’s all about helping them get acclimated to what the business is all about and taking the pressure off to feel like they have to come in and immediately make all kinds of changes,” Whiteman said. “I don’t need somebody to come in and immediately start fixing things. I need them to take their time.”